Building the Ideal Work Relationship with Kanban and Upwork

After more than 10 years as an Agile coach, I saw great benefits in leveraging Kanban to flow work efficiently and get faster results. I tried many available online Kanban tools, but none could build complex boards while offering a simple experience focused on leveraging all the benefits of Kanban. So, I decided to build the ideal online Kanban solution. I assumed the role of product owner and partnered with Kristen Varona, a fellow Agile coach. She has a strong development background and assumed the role of the architect. We drew concepts and built a backlog of work and began building the team for our new product called Kanban Zone.

Since Kristen and I live in the same city, we started by leveraging local talent. We were very lucky to have met many great developers over the years, so we engaged a few of them to start building Kanban Zone. We quickly ran into problems… 

Problem #1 – Cost

As a startup that chose to bootstrap this endeavor, we needed to keep a tight budget and talented developers are not cheap. Our first developer was able to quickly get us started, but once we had a better understanding of the cost associated with launching the first version of Kanban Zone, we realized that we needed to leverage talent differently.

Problem #2 – Availability

Another difficult aspect was that our local developers had limited time because they were “moonlighting” on the side to work on our product. We were able to keep the cost down this way, by not hiring developers full-time while still getting top talent. However, it became obvious that it would take too long at this pace. And because we didn’t have Kanban Zone built yet, we relied on email and basic tools to coordinate the work. It was hit or miss every week in terms of deliverables and sometimes days went by without any communication or completed work.

Problem #3 – Talent

It’s not easy to find top talent when you’re unable to offer a full-time position with a competitive salary and a great workspace. To be clear, we had an office that we never used because both Kristen and I are often on the road working with clients. We simply did not have enough hours in the day to work with a full-time development team. This caused us to lose momentum and start working mainly virtually with our local team. We agreed with our last local developer to part ways until we could find a better working solution for all.

The solution came in the way of a few experiments. In the Agile world, we often rely on empirical evidence to figure out the right direction. I did try building an earlier version of Kanban Zone using a 100% offshore team. It turned out to be exhausting working with a team in a different time zone and difficult to build relationships with the team members who kept changing.

Time to try something new…

I had heard of and visited online freelancing sites but I was skeptical, it simply sounded too good to be true. In retrospect, I feel very lucky that the first platform we tried was Upwork which had recently rebranded itself and touted great features for both employers and freelancers. 

We did try another platform after being successful with Upwork and that turned out to be a nightmare. It became very clear that Upwork had great processes in place to protect both employers and freelancers. Sadly, using the other platform we experienced extortion and threats from a freelancer who tried to release our code to the public. We also met many candidates who simply lied about their skills and wasted our time. 

Another great feature of Upwork is the test results that range from linguistic to engineering skills and combined with a great search using advanced filters, it was clear that Upwork was the right choice.

Time tracking & trust

One of the most difficult aspects of working with freelancers is building trust while you are getting to know them. Although Upwork is not the only platform with the ability to record snapshots from the freelancer’s computer, these work diaries are very helpful to create instant trust because both freelancers and employers are aware of this feature. Another great advantage is not worrying about time entry and wasting time manually tracking hours and debating the details of an invoice. Instead, every week, you receive a simple report with recorded hours and the ability to drill down to see the actual screenshots.

Leveraging a Kanban board to focus on the right work

After eliminating concerns around time tracking, we were still missing a way to prioritize and flow the work. 

Using Kanban, more specifically Kanban Zone, the tool that we were building, created the perfect combination with Upwork. Once hired, the freelancer was immediately assigned their first card on that board.

Portfolio Kanban - Reduce Overburden - Improve Flow

One of the key properties of Kanban is to visualize the work, and this on its own increases clarity and productivity. Learn more about the actual board we use and every step of our team’s development process by reading How Our Team Uses Kanban to Develop Software

After hiring multiple developers through Upwork, we launched Kanban Zone in record time and two of the initial developers from Upwork are still part of our team. We love our distributed team and all the issues mentioned at the beginning of this article have been resolved…

Cost – With weekly time limits set within Upwork and clear work on a Kanban board, we stay on budget and we can easily track our return on investment. 

Availability – As a team, we meet once a week using video conferencing and because Kanban ensures that we always focus on the right work at the right time, we see real progress every week.

Talent – The great advantage of using Upwork is that most freelancers are already used to working as freelancers. This means that there is flexibility to work from wherever you are and whenever you want, as long as the cards progress on the Kanban board and time is recorded in Upwork. We believe that to attract the great talent you must also invest in great work/life balance. We love sharing vacation pictures among our team and some of us have managed to meet in person through fun travels.

It’s been an exhilarating journey to develop Kanban Zone. By leveraging Upwork we have achieved our initial goal of launching our product within budget and on time. As we continue to grow our market presence with Kanban Zone, we hire other roles than just developers, including content writers, data entry specialists, and marketing strategists. Combining Kanban and Upwork to organize work for our Agile team is our recipe for success. What is yours?

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Once you start visualizing your work in Kanban Zone, you will be surprised how much faster it gets done!

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About the Author: Dimitri Ponomareff

Kanban Coach Dimitri Ponomareff
Dimitri Ponomareff is a Coach. Transforming organizations to deliver value faster since 2005, using Agile, Scrum/XP first, and then blending Lean and Kanban. Dimitri has the ability to relate and energize people. He is consistently recognized as a very passionate and successful change agent, with an overwhelming capacity to motivate and mobilize teams on their path to continuous improvements.